Archive for June, 2006

More Efficient Bulb

Thursday, June 29th, 2006

Switching to more efficient light bulbs around the world can save 10% of the world’s electricity.

That’s a lot.

Energy-efficient lighting can seem such an obviously good idea that it is hard to comprehend why it is not used everywhere.

Note: statistics are for the world, and vary tremendously by country. A greater percentage of energy and greenhouse emissions in the first world comes from flying and driving.

Effects of Climate Change on People and Other Species

Monday, June 26th, 2006

James Hansen has written an article for the New York Review of Books. His article is better than my summary.

First, the other species:

Studies of more than one thousand species of plants, animals, and insects, including butterfly ranges charted by members of the public, found an average migration rate toward the North and South Poles of about four miles per decade in the second half of the twentieth century. That is not fast enough. During the past thirty years the lines marking the regions in which a given average temperature prevails (“isotherms”) have been moving poleward at a rate of about thirty-five miles per decade…

As long as the total movement of isotherms toward the poles is much smaller than the size of the habitat, or the ranges in which the animals live, the effect on species is limited. But now the movement is inexorably toward the poles and totals more than a hundred miles over the past several decades. If emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase at the current rate—”business as usual”—then the rate of isotherm movement will double in this century to at least seventy miles per decade. If we continue on this path, a large fraction of the species on Earth, as many as 50 percent or more, may become extinct.

Hansen mentions the previous mass extinctions that accompanied temperature increases of up to 10 F,

when between 50 and 90 percent of the species on Earth disappeared forever. In each case, life survived and new species developed over hundreds of thousands of years. The most recent of these mass extinctions defines the boundary, 55 million years ago, between the Paleocene and Eocene epochs. The evolutionary turmoil associated with that climate change gave rise to a host of modern mammals, from rodents to primates, which appear in fossil records for the first time in the early Eocene.

If human beings follow a business-as-usual course, continuing to exploit fossil fuel resources without reducing carbon emissions or capturing and sequestering them before they warm the atmosphere, the eventual effects on climate and life may be comparable to those at the time of mass extinctions. Life will survive, but it will do so on a transformed planet. For all foreseeable human generations, it will be a far more desolate world than the one in which civilization developed and flourished during the past several thousand years.

What about the direct effect on people, outside of our need for and appreciation of other species? If the temperature rises 3 C this century, 5 F, sea level is likely to rise 80 ft. There go the East Coast cities: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and pretty much all of Florida. One sixth of Americans live less than 80 ft above our current sea level. In China, 250 million people live below that new sea level, Bangladesh 120 million (out of 140 million), and India 150 million. This process would begin slowly, then (according to evidence from past ice sheets), sea level could rise 1 meter/40 inches, every 20 years.

The increase in melting is already being seen. Summer icequakes in Greenland registering at least 4.6 on the Richter scale, from the ice lurching forward and then stopping, have quadrupled since 1993.

The alternate scenario, the one where we are responsible and cut our emissions, leveling off this decade and then decreasing rapidly over 3 decades,

with (added) global warming under two degrees Fahrenheit, still produces a significant rise in the sea level, but its slower rate, probably less than a few feet per century, would allow time to develop strategies that would adapt to, and mitigate, the rise in the sea level.

Moreover, things could get really serious if warming this century is as little as 3 – 4 F, then,

all bets are off.

The 55 million year ago mass extinction was caused, it is thought, by the release of frozen methane hydrates (natural gas frozen into water) in the Arctic, and it may warm enough before this century is over to release significant amounts. If this happens, we cannot create a good scenario no matter what we do.

We need to level greenhouse gas emissions by 2015 and then cut them rapidly afterwards.

Questions: What are you hearing in the media about the degree and speed of needed reductions? Are you hearing that since 30% of cumulative GHG emissions are American and since we’re richer, that we will pay for much of the developing world to shift to lower carbon energy sources, and that Europe will have to as well?

Could the Warming be Natural?

Saturday, June 24th, 2006

“The Earth is warming,” a self-professed skeptic said last night when nine of us met to discuss the Gore movie, “but how do we know it is not from natural causes?” I’ve rephrased what he said as a question, but he didn’t actually have any questions, which may make him less a skeptic and more a denier.

So is there a way to differentiate, do the different causes of climate change have different fingerprints which can help us distinguish among them? Yes

For example, if increased solar activity had heated the Earth almost 1.5 F from 1900, which would be warming faster, day or night? winter or summer? Would the stratosphere be warming along with the troposphere (lower atmosphere)?

The results are different from what increased solar activity would produce: nights and winters are warming much faster. The stratosphere is cooling because the increase radiation from the sun is relatively small compared to the increase in the amount of heat that the Earth is holding onto.

Additionally the tropopause is rising. The tropopause is the boundary between the troposphere, where temperature goes down with altitude, and the stratosphere, where temperature goes up with altitude. The mixed in GHG have spread to the top of the troposphere and a little beyond, and now it’s larger, 200 meters higher than in 1979.

A lot of it is the decrease in atmospheric ozone — but look at the graphs a little over midway down to see the enormous effects of pollution (sulfate aerosols) on cooling the Earth — this is only temporary, if we stopped using coal today the pollution would go way down and the GHG would stay for much longer. Also coal power kills tens of thousands of Americans each year, and many many many more each year in China, and continuing to kill these people so we can continue to mask the effects of rising GHG doesn’t seem like such a wonderful solution.

The tropopause information is very detailed. The ozone depletion contribution is stronger in the southern hemisphere. The effect of sulfate aerosols is stronger where most people live, in the northern hemisphere. Because the data that allowed the tropopause conclusion is so detailed, it allowed scientists to identify another fingerprint of global warming caused by GHG.

The denier excepted, I was heartened so many came together with a desire to “do something”. An easy something to start with is to begin the conversation with people you know. I heard once, and it may even be true, that when 20% of a group changes its mind, the group begins to respond.

Peak Oil Again

Tuesday, June 13th, 2006

I’ve posted on peak oil before, but I am hearing about it more frequently, so perhaps it’s time to post again.

In 1997 I read the Campbell article in Scientific American, and it made sense: there’s a limited amount of oil, the most optimistic believe that we’ll reach this peak within 30 – 40 years, even if the peak is decades away, it makes sense to cut back on oil use now. By a lot.

I wasn’t enamored by the solutions of the peak oil advertisers, retreating into small villages. The solutions seemed recycled Y2k, in fact, these solutions appeared shortly after 2000 if I have my history right. This makes them look like solutions in search of a problem.

I understood some of the scientific arguments against an early peak – world oil reserves are not as well explored as American ones had been when Hubbert produced his analysis of when the US would reach peak oil (and as one scientist peak oil aficionado pointed out, Hubbert’s analysis wasn’t all that good, he was lucky in predicting US peak).

I was challenged by the total lack of interest in this topic in the policy and climate change community. They kept saying peak oil is not a problem, but burning the oil is. I knew these people to be numerate, yet they were not interested in a topic that seemed common sense to me.

It wasn’t until many years later that I learned why. We can switch to plants-to-fuels, or biofuels (after some point, this will cause damage to water and land). We can switch to coal-to-fuels, or synfuel (we can capture and geologically store the carbon dioxide produced in producing this synfuel, though we can’t capture and store the carbon dioxide produced in using fuels in a car, airplane, etc.) It will be long after my death when we run out of relatively cheap fuels – relatively cheap may be more expensive than they are today, but they still will be relatively cheap.

Long before, we will have emitted enough carbon to devastate the Earth. The issue won’t be regional solutions. Instead, water availability, or too much water, or both floods and drought in the same area will be problems. The productivity of crops and ecosystems everywhere will have declined or plummeted. And the important problems will not be whether the rich can continue our lifestyle, but whether the poor can find a way to live.

Some feel that it’s OK to focus on peak oil because the solutions are the same. The only solution that overlaps is to drive less, and if peak oil people do this, fine. But solutions such as synfuels, solutions such as using the tar sands of Canada to produce our oil, as we are now doing, are not solutions to climate change. And devoting energy to building a local community structure may be useful, but how will we solve problems if hundreds of millions Chinese need to move because they don’t have water. If 100 million Bangladeshi (population 144 million) must move because of a sea level rise this century of 1 meter (or more). Such predictions are not yet into IPCC reports, but the predictions now coming out of the scientific community are that we may see a sea level rise of 2 m, as we learn more about ice sheet instability. How will your small town deal with agricultural water no longer available south of the delta in California (east of San Francisco) with a 1 m rise? The problems are global. The solutions must be global.

The most important solution is, of course, for the rich to burn considerably less fossil fuel or to store the carbon emitted (a temporary solution for perhaps a century). And for the rich to subsidize the poor so that they can burn less fossil fuel. There is no way to store the carbon emitted by automobiles and airplanes and motorized boats. We can use biofuels – storing carbon dioxide in plants and then releasing the same carbon when burned – for only some of our transportation needs. Perhaps a better use of our energy is to lobby our legislators hard to double fuel efficiency of cars. And reconsider our own use of transportation. And labor – badger nicely! – with others on their transportation modes. Not because others are evil, but because all of us do not want to harm the Earth, we all want to be part of the solution.

Bob Seeley looks at the other side of peak oil, those who believe physical reality is too confining, and that there is a Bottomless Well.

On the Importance of Educating Ourselves on Climate Change

Thursday, June 8th, 2006

Last Sunday, Berkeley Friends Meeting had a called Meeting on the environment. I will say a little more about this later.

Catharine Lucas gave ministry on the importance of education, and I asked her to write up her ideas:

On-going education – of ourselves and others – is the cornerstone of any meaningful response to the current environmental crisis, and the proper preparation for our Leadings to operate on informed and receptive consciousness. Without constantly educating ourselves, we run three great risks:

Risk #1: The Risk of Under-Reacting. If I do not regularly check reliable sources for updates, it will be easy to forget the urgency and value of taking action now; I can fall into complacency, listen selectively, heed false reassurances, stay stuck in comfortable denial, hide behind skepticism, imagine that alarming facts are not known for sure – when actually they may be known quite well.

Risk #2: The Risk of Over-Reacting. If I do not regularly review reliable sources of information, learn to interpret the news in an informed and measured spirit, I may get caught up in imagining the most unlikely outcomes, may heed false alarms and pass them on. This will cost me credibility when others discover I’m out in left field. Worse, I can fall into despair, believing there’s nothing to be done.

Risk #3: The Risk of Mis-Reacting: Without constant re-education as more is learned about causes and effects, I risk directing my energy and resources inappropriately, adopting practices or campaigning for solutions that have little effect, or even negative effects on the goals I want to achieve. I may attach too much importance to one small act while failing to discover additional acts that I could easily practice with far greater effect on global warming. I may devote great attention to debates over the relative virtues of plastic vs. paper bags for groceries, but forget to carry my cloth bags, buy more bulk foods, or – far more significantly – discover I can shop some days on foot or by bus, or carpool with a neighbor. I may invest thousands in solar panels – when I might reduce my carbon emissions more by installing flash-heating for my hot water. I might oppose efforts to make nuclear energy a safe option while ignoring the greenhouse gases and deadly pollution from millions of traditional coal power plants. I may “fight to save the polar bear,” not realizing its fate is already sealed, in part by cars, planes, coal-fired plants, in part by rainforest-burning. How do I help stop the burning of rainforests?

Education is worrisome, when we think of all the things we’d rather not know.

Education is worrisome, when we don’t know whom or what to believe; when we don’t trust our tired minds to keep straight the bombardment of information available.

But driving downhill toward a cliff with blinders on is more worrisome still.

Elizabeth Kolbert closed one of her many New Yorker pieces updating news on global warming by marveling — that the United States has poured more money than any country in history into state-of-the-art scientific research on climate, obtaining the most accurate and reliable data now available to humankind, creating the most sophisticated and reliable models for prediction we have ever benefited from – And then chooses to ignore the information thus obtained.

How can we help each other stay aware, awake, alive to passionate leadings, able to engage in informed action with open hearts and joyful spirits?